Did Stanley Tookie Williams deserve to die? What a silly question. Doesn't the Good Book say that it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment? We all die. The question in Mr. Williams' case is whether any public purpose was served by killing him.
Mr. Williams was a founding member of a gang with a legendary reputation for violence, the Crips. Long after all of us are dead, social historians will still write about the Crips and the Bloods, and other street gangs. What need did these unique social organisms fill? That is a question we refuse to answer, preferring safe sanctimony to searing truths.
And Mr. Williams was convicted of the cold-blooded murder of four people in 1979, more than 25 years ago. Since that time, he has been removed from society, thus fulfilling one of the functions of a criminal sentence.
It appears that Mr. Williams was also rehabilitated, another function of the penal system. Oh, he never admitted to the killings, and he denied his role in them until the needle finally found a vein. But he did write about the dangers of gang-banging, even authoring children's books warning those at risk to find other places of refuge in a society often prepared to consign the urban poor to the margins. He was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his work. No one argued that he should be released; merely, that killing him cost society a voice worth hearing.
Did his incarceration serve the purpose of specific deterrence? Apparently. He did not kill again, and I am sure he had opportunities behind bars. Oh, I know he talked of killing his captors to escape, a factor California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cited in his decision to refuse to commute the death sentence. But even Thomas Hobbes, one of political thought's great authoritarians, recognized that once a sovereign seeks to kill you, you retain the right to fight back, even to kill.
Did jailing him deter others? I have never bought the argument that the life sentences, or even a sentence of death, deters. I do not know how many murder cases I have been involved in. Only contract killers calculate consequences, and these killers are more likely to kill in a close case to avoid being caught; most kill in blind passion.
No, the only reason we killed Mr. Williams was for vengeance, the most venal passion of all. Mr. Williams put it best: "To threaten me with death does not accomplish the means (sic) of the criminal justice system or satiate those who think my death or demise will be closure for them. Their loved ones will not rise up from the grave and love them.... My death will not mollify them."
Mr. Williams' victims are still dead, and the silent flicker of satisfaction their families had on learning that Mr. Williams, too, is now dead will soon be replaced by the howling grief of loss or the permanent sadness of absent love.
So who won in the killing of Tookie Williams? The relatives of the dead. For a moment, they made us share their grief and loss. That is not justice. That is pandering to the lowest common denominator.